Historical analogy – does it help or harm?

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As Peter Gordon and Samuel Moyn converse with one another about the efficacy of historical analogy and comparison – particularly in the context of fascism and the current political climate – there appears to be a misunderstanding between the two authors which de Grazia addresses very early on in her article. It seems that Gordon and Moyn are basing their articles on two different meanings of fascism – Moyn engages with fascism as a historical phenomenon, while Gordon’s definition extends more broadly to the political label. De Grazia strikes an important balance in her piece. There is the essential task of knowing and remembering fascism as an historical event – it led to some of the worst suffering humanity has borne witness to. However, there is a very real risk of oversimplifying that event and applying it to modern goings on. That is not to say that fascism is not a real and present threat in the 21st century, but rather, an effort must be made to understand it for what it is, rather than as a shadow or imitation of something else.

There also appears to be a disconnect in the language employed by Gordon and Moyn in the use of analogy vs comparison. Gordon very intentionally prefers analogy, and makes a point of it, writing that “there’s an important difference between analogy and comparison but I’ll ignore that difference here.” Moyn, on the other hand, titles his piece “The Trouble with Comparison.” This may simply be a matter of semantics, but one wonders if the difference speaks to a broader misunderstanding between the two. After all, they both seem to be working towards a similar overall point – that there is a very critical need to address and seek to understand fascism in the modern context, and historical sensibility is very necessary in achieving that understanding. While their disagreements on how exactly to undertake the historical sensibility do differ, and I do not believe those differences can be boiled down to word choice and a slightly different working definition of the word fascism, they both recognize the benefits and pitfalls of analogy/comparison, and caution against similar things; namely, that historical comparison, if it is to be done, be done very cautiously, intentionally, and in recognition of De Grazia’s point that modern fascism ultimately does need to be recognized as its own phenomenon. In coming away from their articles, I am left wondering how best to go about that, in an actionable and practical sense, rather than just the theoretical.

Works Cited

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square

https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-historymussolini- hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020),


Samuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” NYR Daily (19 May 2020)